Television Documentary: Sowing the seeds of love

Aminatta Forna on would-be and should-never-be parents
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The Independent Culture
True Stories Channel 4

Inside Story BBC1

Annie Makepeace's film Baby It's You begins at an American dinner party. Soon Annie begins to document her experiences of attempting to conceive through a fertility specialist. Annie and partner Peter have simply left the decision to have a baby too late: "I'm in my late forties, so it's hard for me to get pregnant the fun way." It's at this point one wonders how long yet another programme about middle-class infertility will sustain the audience's interest and sympathy.

But Makepeace's documentary is a beautifully crafted, unpretentious and searingly honest exploration of critical and fundamental questions about the desire for children, specifically one's own biological child. At first, the motives the pair express are simple, prosaic even. Peter wants "an anchor to what it is like to be young". He won't consider adoption. With six childless siblings between them, Annie sees their bloodlines dying out. She wants children who look like her parents.

As their fertility treatment progresses, we meet members of their families - a curious lot by anyone's reckoning. There's Doug, a New York investment manager and wannabe polygamist who plans to establish a second (and third and fourth) home in Utah, and to father dozens of children. Roger is a reclusive goat-keeper who never wants to be a parent. There emerges, through their memories, a fragmented account of a dry, disappointing childhood with a disconnected mother. "I never thought of her as having children," muses Aunt Evelyn. "I always wondered if she was made to be a mother."

That both the film and the attempt to have a baby are efforts to excise the past is not concealed. The moment of truth arrives when Annie confesses to her aunts, fulfilling the role of her dead parents, details of an illegal abortion she underwent in her teens. Blindfolded and operated on without anaesthetic, the ordeal left her scarred and subsequently infertile.

If the film is a little self-indulgent, one is happy to let that pass. Shot over two years, the narrative draws in events surrounding the couple - births, marriages, the tragic death of Peter's sister only days before her daughter's first birthday. When the second attempt at fertility treatment fails, Annie and Peter lay to rest the ghost of their never-born child.

How far people have gone to create their vision of a family is the subject of Desmond Wilcox's report on Test Tube Dads for BBC1's Inside Story. A million children in the USA have been born as a result of DI (donor insemination), many of whom are now in their teens and beginning to seek information about their biological fathers. The intense secrecy which surrounded DI is an indication of how reproductive technology is designed to fulfil the needs of adults and not children. Families were encouraged to pretend children were theirs and, in the UK, many DI children have never been told. One British interviewee worked out, as an 11-year-old during a biology lesson on genes, that she could not be her father's child.

The Peck family in America have three children born as a result of sperm donated by two different men. After their father walks out (mother Becky admits that DI was a contributory factor), the children embark on a search for their genetic fathers. That they talk about finding their "father" - while their mother sticks to the term "donor" - is evidence of the children's yearning and confusion. The film follows their search and subsequent meeting - the desired result. Yet the home video of the reunion is too self conscious, too bright, too much as though everyone is behaving like a "real" family. One is left with an unequivocal sense of trouble ahead.

Aminatta Forna is the author of 'Mother of All Myths' (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99).

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